Kevin Wong: Forming a Community through Language Exchange

Article by Liam McLean
Photos Courtesy of Syed Mustafa

Arriving in Vancouver from Hong Kong in 1980, Kevin Wong understands the difficulty of learning a new language in a foreign place. As we sit in the Kerrisdale Community Centre, his hand holding a book that will foreshadow the content of our conversation, he tells me about his first encounters with the English language in Hong Kong and in Vancouver. “When we were in Hong Kong we had English classes, but they are just basically grammar,” said Kevin, “Because every day we just spoke the Chinese [Cantonese]. We seldom used English in writing, speaking. So, basically when we came over here […] it was quite difficult to communicate.” After arriving in Canada, Kevin first attended Langara where his struggles with English continued, failing his first two attempts at a required first-year English course offered by the English as a Second Language (E.S.L) program. For Kevin, those early days of learning a new language were made more difficult since “everyday you have to encounter people [who speak English] and some people they talk really fast and don’t have the patience to say it again. Then you just have to guess what they’re talking about and half of the time you guess wrong.” With his sights set on attending Simon Fraser University, it was vital for him to understand English well enough to acquire the necessary transfer credits from Langara and to communicate in daily Vancouver life. 

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-6-22-23-pm-676x1024Kevin’s struggles diminished during his third attempt at the English program when he received the proper aid to accommodate his learning style. “The turning point was the teacher,” Kevin said, looking back at that third class, “She actually taught me the basics of grammar and she had the patience. She actually changed the way I look at English as a language […] Some people [students] they learn and get better, and some they just finish it [language classes] and that’s it, they’re not interested in language anymore.” Due to this great experience, Kevin became interested in English literature and drama, eventually passing all his English courses at Langara and transferring to Simon Fraser University. His newfound appreciation for the English language motivated him to potentially study English literature. Although he would later get a degree in accounting, those formative years at Langara instilled within him a lifelong interest in literature and language. His firsthand experience learning a language in a new country gave him an excellent understanding of the teaching methods that could work for someone who is new to a language, a perspective that will prove invaluable in his later language exchange groups. As long as the teacher is patient and comprehensive, the student will learn and understand.

Kevin started his first language exchange group at the Marpole-Oakridge Community Centre five years ago, after the end of his accounting career. “There are so many Chinese people that come from mainland China and they speak Mandarin and I speak Cantonese,” Kevin said when asked about his early motivations, “I was thinking if I want to make more friends with people from mainland China then I need to learn more Mandarin.” In the beginning at Marpole, Kevin and his friend Tom, a Caucasian, would learn Mandarin while his friend George, from Beijing, would learn English. For Kevin, this was also a chance for him to improve his own English “since it’s not my mother tongue and it’s a chance for me to learn as well.” Although there were only three in the group at the time, it was during these years that Kevin first came up with the idea for a language exchange group open to the public at the Kerrisdale Community Centre. In 2016, he and his group moved over to Kerrisdale, where they were able to have a room for themselvesand could expand the size of their group.

During the later half of 2016, Kevin has been an active member of the Kerrisdale Community Centre’s Community Engagement Committee and is responsible for initiating the 2017 English-Mandarin Language Exchange Group, a program that is open to the public and for people of all levels of proficiency. Kevin describes the program as “an exchange [where] the person who knows Mandarin can teach the person who knows English some Chinese [Mandarin] and the other way around.” Kevin’s program provides a space for people to gather and develop their English or Mandarin in a conversational setting free of expectation. By sharing and communicating, each member can develop their language skills while building relationships with other attendees and the community. When asked about accommodating people completely new to both languages, Kevin stated that “if they don’t speak English at all, or they don’t speak Chinese at all, I will be the one to help them, to help set up the program that they want.” He understands the patience required to teach someone a new language and is willing to help create practice material suitable for a member’s needs. The group learning experience will also be incredibly flexible and members are encouraged to bring their own material that they need help understanding. People of all levels and ages are welcome to attend and the group’s format and structure will continuously evolve to support all the members that are present.

For Kevin, the group will be more than a space for learning language, it will be a place to form relationships. “The idea is not only that they learn English, they also build a friendship,” said Kevin, and when asked about his vision for the group, “The idea is to bring the people together. Hopefully, they find interests, the same interests, so that they can build friendships and also the group as well.” His wish is that group members can establish meaningful relationships and participate in activities outside of the language exchange, similar to the friendships he formed with Tom and George in Marpole. For him, this community engagement goal is as important as learning languages, stating that “I know some people from other countries, like Russia, South America, they want to learn English, so I think this is a good idea. I have a neighbour, who is seventy years old, who came from Russia. She has little English but she couldn’t find a place that she can learn English […] Something like this [program] can be good for her because also she can meet other people. I think that may help people establish their life here, to help them.” Kevin hopes that people will form intercultural and intergenerational connections by participating in his program, resulting in the enrichment of the community. If language and communication are the foundations that all communities are built on, then Kevin’s program is a great way to develop a new local community while learning something new. 

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However, setting up the program has not been without its challenges. Since no registration is required, there is no certainty about who will join or their individual needs until the program starts. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Kevin regarding the challenges he faces, “A lot like, if you have a [predetermined] course, you set up all the guidelines and everything, it will be easy to follow. But this one, you just have to respond to it, to the situation.” He is also looking for volunteers to help him with the program and create learning material for those who need the extra help. Regardless of the potential challenges, Kevin is eager to begin and facilitate a space for people to form relationships through language and communal learning.

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If you want to help Kevin or join the English-Mandarin Language Exchange Group, they will begin their meetings during the first week of February 2017 at the Kerrisdale Community Centre. Newcomers at all levels can drop-in whenever they want. “Just show up, they don’t have to register, they don’t have to pay,” said Kevin with enthusiasm, “They just need to have patience and try to be involved, that’s the main thing for them to join.”

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